Pop Culture

I’m on record as being unmoved by both Japanese teas and Japanese tea culture and ceremonies.

Taking your shoes off, sitting on a rush mat and admiring a stick in a vase does not in any way cause me to suddenly enjoy tea that is too bitter, and/or too thin, and/or looks like second-hand bile or worst of all, has rice in it.

Luckily, I have a delightful Japanese sister-in-law to whom I can give all the Japanese tea samples that I get sent by people hoping to change my mind. And to be fair, I generally try them before washing my mouth out with 1001 Nights and having a decent cuppa.

Australia’s history with Japan, one of our biggest trading partners, has been checkered to say the least. Partly because Australia grew from the patronising, condescending British Empire belief in the superiority of the white man (except for Frenchmen, obviously) and the Japanese have been committed to their own xenophobia and belief in their own superiority for a very long time. It would be hard to get two more diametrically opposing views. Japanese trade barriers have been an issue here, and whaling is a major (whale)bone of contention – Australia sees the slaughter of whales by the Japanese as exactly that, and Japan sees attempts to stop them spending a fortune slaughtering creatures that no-one actually wants to eat as an attack on their sovereign right to do stupid and cruel things.

But mostly because of the Second World War. That was predictably a low point in Japanese-Australian relations.

One of the controversies that many people have taken an interest in is the whitewashing of Japanese history: prime examples are the complete removal from Japanese approved school textbooks of The Nanking Massacre, forced suicides and the forcing of women into sex slavery during WWII, and downplaying of hideous crimes like the Burma Railway.

One cannot escape comparing post-war Germany, where holocaust denial is see as one of the worst possible crimes, and the Japanese attitude, where effectively the same thing is seen as a public duty. Over the last decade, brave individuals in Japan have set about redressing this, and I doubt many of us Westerners can conceive just how brave that is.

And so this brings me back to tea: it seems to me that tea is often held up as ‘proof of civilisation’ in Japan’s case. As I expressed in a recent post, it doesn’t work for England and neither does it work for Japan.

And here’s where I get to my topic: For a long time I have believed the tea industry has taken it upon itself to whitewash a shameful part of our collective past in order to not offend Japanese sensibilities.

My imperfect memory led me to I believe I first read of the topic I want to outline in Liquid Jade by Beatrice Hoheggener, which remains my favourite book on tea (despite the fact I’ve written two myself).

I assembled my tea books for this project, and three were missing: For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose, Tea Pages by my good friend Katrina Avilla Munichiello and the aformentioned Liquid Jade. I have a habit of lending books to people and then forgetting about it. Damn.

Since Sarah Rose’s book is specifically about Robert Fortune, China and India and Katrina’s is more a collection of personal essays, I doubt the series of incidents I am considering made it to either, and fair enough. But I felt so sure about Liquid Jade that I wrote to the author to check my facts.

And I was wrong! Beatrice explained that there was no information about this in her book, as she was not across the information. But that she was interested to learn more.

Wow! An author whom I respect and whose book is full of quality research does not know much about this? Does this alter my hypothesis?

Is this information (a) not being reproduced because of attempts to blur history, or (b) just because it is not widely known. Or, does (b) follow (a)?

The facts are fairly simple: let’s list them with no annoying detail, to make it easy to follow.

  1. The Dutch colonised The Dutch East Indies – a huge bunch of islands, based around Batavia (Java) and at some point started growing tea.
  2. At times when Britain was an ally of the Dutch and the Dutch were a bit cash-strapped, British expertise stepped in.
  3. The industry was huge between the World Wars, and a lot of the tea went to Australia. In fact, Australia refused to sign an agreement to buy stuff from the British Empire as a first preference just to keep that lovely and convenient tea from The Dutch East Indies coming in.
  4. The Dutch East Indies did a good job of producing tea via the usual methods: white overseers and horribly mistreated natives.
  5. Poor colonial government led to some unrest across the archipelago.
  6. As part of Japanese aggression during WWII , they invaded. FOUR MILLION people died as a direct result.
  7. The Japanese stoked militancy and racism, particularly as it became clear that they were going to have to retreat. Deflecting blame for much of the past, they helped militant separatists and nationalists into positions of power before they fled.
  8. Holland was shattered after WWII, and just couldn’t afford to keep her colonies.
  9. Indonesia became independent.
  10. Indonesia had no tea industry.

Every point from 4 to 9 impacted the tea industry. The loss of life and tea gardens resulting from the invasion was the most direct and brutal step in removing this industry, but all the other factors contributed.

The fourth largest tea growing country of tea in the world in the 1930s had no tea industry at all from 1945 until a revival started in the mid 80s.

And yet, it’s not that easy to get information on this.

I have on my desk 17 books on tea. And I’m going to have a look at what they say about The Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia.

I can dismiss books like Afternoon Tea at The Savoy and Taking Tea at The Ritz. Not really the place for this information. Nor are Alice Parson’s The Magic of Tea or Jane Campsie’s The Perfect Brew, although that lists Indonesia as one of the ‘major producers until the early 19th Century’ which just seems slightly muddled to me.

I’m also going to dismiss ‘Curiosi-tea’ by Camelia Cha from serious contention. Initially I dismissed it because it has a so-called ‘tea  pun’ every second sentence – as in the title, where you change a vague homonym to ‘tea’. (Here’s my tip: if you are over 4 years old, you get to do this once a year, max. Not every paragraph in a book)  It actually has more about Indonesia than most tea books, about ten entries for completeness which I applaud and several pages on the Dutch tea pioneer Jacobbus. But nothing at all on the time in question.

Tea- A Global History by Helen Saberi has just over a page on Indonesia. The events in question are outlined thusly: “…until the Second World War. The war resulted in the destruction of Indonesian tea estates and factories and many tea plants returned to their wild state”. It’s a mention, but given the title of the book, pretty skimpy.

A book that purports to be more in-depth about tea: Tea-History Terroirs Variety by Gascoine et al is actually the book that set me off on this post. Despite covering tea growing countries as Nepal, Vietnam and Malawi, a check of their index reveal Indonesia is not even present. But, hey, Japan is covered pretty extensively. I guess when you write things like “The Japanese have created a unique product, worthy of their refined and demanding culture” then four million deaths is not exactly bolstering your argument, best leave it out entirely. (In fact, I got so mad, I threw this book in the bin after typing that.)

The Story of Tea – A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by ML & RJ Heiss is pretty thick and seems worth a shot. Actually, it’s a pretty good book and  has a reasonable two-page overview of tea history in Indonesia.  But their summation of points 6 and 7 above is “The strategic position of the Indonesian archipelago during World War II had a negative effect on the tea industry” and this compares to a bucketload of pages on Japanese tea culture.

You can see why this is getting up my nose, right? Most of these books give as much wordcount to rush-matting in Chado than they do to an incredibly shameful chapter in tea history.

Now, I come to a couple of books that are definitely in the “Let us tell you the truth about the terrible history of tea” category. I should get some grim satisfaction there, surely.

A & I MacFarlane’s Green Gold – The Empire of Tea makes it really hard to find anything, as neither ‘Dutch East Indies” nor “Indonesia” appear in the index. However, I am nothing if not persistent and managed to find “Java”, as well as a few obviously Dutch names. There’s a few mentions here and there but I couldn’t find anything relevant.

Never mind : Roy Moxham is bound to have a bunch of stuff in A Brief History of Tea – The Extraordinary Story of The World’s Favorite Drink.  But guess again. Mr Moxham’s mention of the hardships in the tea industry during WWII including a mention of “it not being a good time for the industry in India” and that Plantation House in Mincing Lane, London was bombed. “Java” is scattered throughout the book, usually as a passing mention.

All this only leaves Tea- A History of the Drink that Changed the World by John Griffiths. And this is the best of the lot. Whilst best to read it cover to cover and assemble the information as it is presented, a bit of index-skimming finds most of this. It is not overly detailed, but is particularity good at covering the historical sweep. So, whereas some books have pages devoted to Dutch East Indies tea pioneers and half a sentence on WWII, Griffiths covers the narrative a little briefly but with excellent political understanding.

At this point: a quick review. I have an extensive collection of books, and yet the information I want is hard to find. It’s either not well known or being suppressed for as various reasons.

If you search the internet and ignore the pages that tell you that Catherine of Braganza invented tea so that Dr Oz can prescribe Teavana’s Orange Biscuit Coconut Giraffe-testicle Berry Treat to cure cancer, polio and diabetes, you still end up with a whole bunch of not much.

And me? When I wrote The Infusiast, I had to pick seven countries to briefly write the tea growing history of. I had a list of ten to start with, and Indonesia didn’t make the cut. Why? It’s not like I was unaware of this information. I have even covered it previously on this blog, in posts like this one and this one. To be fair, India, China, Sri Lanka and yes, Japan needed to be there. The plight of Kenyan tea workers and the prevalence of Kenyan tea in the bagged industry compelled me to include that country. And I am Australian, one has to be a bit patriotic. That left one spot, and Turkey seemed to offer a better balance to the book. Vietnam, Malawi and Indonesia missed the cut. So I may well be part of the problem.

So, I’m going to have to draw a conclusion: And here it is.

I believe the  history of tea is distorted in such a way as to favour the idea of a superior Japanese culture and incidentally, take a few cheap shots at the ‘inferior’ British one. Any dissenting voices are often dismissed as racism. I think there is a complexity of reasons, but the combination of former colonies who enjoy putting the boot in over England’s sometimes shameful past (or who just enjoy beating them at sport, like us Australians) and the fear of offending the easily-offended Japanese has led to a dearth of knowledge about the events of 1942-1944. This in turn has led to many fine authors such as Beatrice Hoheggener simply not having these events on their radar.

And yet these events changed the world.

 

 

Robert Godden

Certified Tea Nutter. Blender. Author of "The Infusiast" and Tea "Stories"

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5 thoughts on “Pop Culture

  1. I didn’t even know Indonesia had a tea industry prior to 1980 until coming across your blog. I always assumed it was a new thing – like the US’s burgeoning attempts. Since then, I’ve notched off three Indonesian teas – an oolong, a black pearled tea (although technically owned by a Taiwanese company), and a white tea from some unpronounceable estate. Kinda makes me wonder what used to be.

    As for Japan. I’m no Japanese apologist, but I do appreciate the culture. Just as I occasionally admire German beer, I – too – have found Japanese teas I’ve liked. On top of that, there are aspects of the culture I respect.

    But make no mistake…

    Japan – just as Germany – has paid one price for its earlier horrors. They are both jokes on the Internet. Type in “Meanwhile in Japan/German…” and see what you come up with.

    That’s karma, bitches.

  2. As the regular other guy here (by other I mean the guy who is supposed to be on the wrong side so to say), I find this post interesting.
    Mostly because you didn’t find anything, which is always surprising but yet interesting.

    I am not convinced by your explanations behind the suposed Japanese tea superiority but I think this Indonesian tea mistery should be interesting to solve.

  3. Fascinating. It is further evidence how deep and wide the topic of tea is. It’s history, science, cultural and political influences, and geographic reach would take several lifetimes to fully appreciate.

  4. I do have a few books about the Dutch Indies tea industry, but they are from before (or about before) WWII and mostly in Dutch. I remember having encountered the result of the war story before, but that might have been Griffiths.

    A quick scan of the visible part of my tea book library did not ring any bell’s either.

    Did you know the Dutch were the first westerners who were able to grow and produce tea. Unfortunately not a profitable scale. They had to wait for the Assam variety and then Fortune took the honours.

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